Growing Up African: A Review of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller (2001), and Rainbow’s End, by Lauren St. John (2007)
I’m hardly qualified as an expert on South or East Africa. After all, I only visited there with my wife for three weeks in 1987, and then only in a kind of surreal Hemingway-style photographic safari unknown to practically all Africans, white and black. And yet even now I can remember its sounds, sights, smells, and tastes --- lions growling in the chill night, liquid sounds of Africans talking softly around the campfire, the musty earthy smell of the city in Nairobi, the smiling begging faces of the children --- all just photographs for me, a brief vacation. But for some, it’s home; it’s where they grew up.
For whatever reason, the most evocative books of Africa for me are those written by women --- white Africans. Early on it was Isak Denison’s Out of Africa, of course, and then Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. Then there was Elspeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika. All were made into movies or mini-series. Now, I can add two more fine memoirs to the collection: Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Lauren St. John’s Rainbow’s End. Both deal with growing up in a white African family in rural (what was then) Rhodesia, both during a civil war and after independence. Both document the sad dysfunctionality of a family under strain, the insecurity of being African and yet not ultimately being welcome in your own country, and, of course, the rich and varied landscape of Africa. I can recommend both.
Alexandra Fuller grew up in a tobacco farming family in Rhodesia, living on the perilous land mine-strewn and rebel-infested east border with Mozambique. Her mother and father are hardy people, and Bobo (her nickname) and older sister Van learn to ride horses, shoot guns, do basic first aid, and entertain themselves, the neighborhood not being full of children. Her Dad goes off for weeks at a time to fight with the Rhodesian army against the rebels seeking to overthrow the white minority government. Her mother manages. They become tough and resilient, and yet underneath she struggles with insecurity, with a mother that is manic-depressive and given to drink, and the sense that she is responsible for the death of her young sister, who fell in a pool at the young age of two under her watch. She attends boarding school, first for whites, and, after independence, with black Africans. After independence, they move to Malawi, and then to Zambia, her dad soldiering on, working, and her mother ultimately, after a stay in a mental institution, released under medicine to control her manic-depressive episodes.
Fuller tells her story in relatively short, dialog-rich chapters with colorful descriptions of the people and places where she lived. I found it compelling and, while at times sad, mostly a testament to the resilience of hardy people who adapted to the changes that came to them in life. I enjoyed the dynamic immediacy of her language:
If we perch on the rocks around the ghost camps we can look out and see what the guerillas must have seen when they were camped there. We see that they have watched us, that they must know where we go every day,our favorite walks, the way we ride. They can see me running down to the dairy first thing in the morning, and Mum and me leaving the house (too late to be back before it is dark) for her evening walk. They have seen Vanessa alone in the garden painting and reading. They have seen Dad striding down to the barns or kicking up sand as he scuds off on his motorbike. Still, they have not swooped down from the hills and killed us, leaving us lipless, eyelidless, bleeding, dead.
There is a remarkable similarity in these books. Lauren St. John also grew up on a farm in Gatooma, east of Salisbury (present day Harare). She too had a sister, a Dad who fought in the Rhodesian army, a family also somewhat dysfunctional, and the experience of boarding school. Here too the same experience of being outcasts in your own country creates an identity crisis --- when all that you thought was true of the world turns out not quite so.
St. John's prose is denser, less immediate, but still richly descriptive of her life in Africa and the emotions she felt:
The sense of disillusionment I felt was total. The country I had loved so much that at times I almost wished I could die for it was not the country I had thought it was. We had repressed people, oppressed people, tortured people, and murdered people for the worst of possible reasons: the color of their skin. Twenty thousand people had died in our war, apparently for nothing. . . . I felt like an earthquake had taken place in my head.
Both St. John and Fuller have a profound alienation from all they knew, their world turned upside down. Interestingly, both professed faith in Christ during their teenage years but, presumably, finding no support for their faith at home, did not continue in faith. What we are left with is two women who survived, who even came to some peace with family and past, but, in the end, may not have a basis for genuine hope.
These books were moving memoirs --- testaments to a time now lost. They stick with you, the images haunting my thoughts even today.